Opportunities/precariousness, methods/mentoring

On Friday 2 May we had our first workshop of this project at City University in London. I have also been involved in a number of other ECR activities around Connected Communities.

Across this range of people and their academic identities the originality of research and the excellence in practice is very striking. However, on a more depressing note, what strikes me most is the precariousness of labour within this group of people.

Before I go on, I need to come clean, as I did with the community of ECRs at our event on Friday. I am still an ECR by the research councils (I think, within seven years of completion of my PhD anyway) however, apart from a brief stint as a civil servant, I am lucky that my academic jobs have been full time and permanent. What is more, I have been extraordinarily lucky in the support I have had from my employer and with the Connected Communities programme itself, to get a strong research profile established. So I speak from a very privileged position.

Our day at City began with talks from Jude Fransman on an emerging piece of her research with ECRs and then Ros Gill of City talking about her book chapter Breaking the Silence. In this chapter she used her background in research on the precariousness and vulnerability of labour in the cultural industries to understand practices which she evocatively described as “killing us”. Much rang true in Ros’ brief talk to us in terms of my own observations from within academia, particularly that the passion we have for our work makes us complicit in our own exploitation.

However, one participant in the workshop provocatively suggested that the precariousness that was described – moving from temporary, often part-time positions repeatedly over the course of a few years – was actually exciting and a great opportunity. In our break-out session we continued to discuss how precariousness and opportunity are quite finely balanced within the ECR’s life. In terms of opportunity, participants spoke openly that short-term contracts had allowed them to do exciting research that they did not think was possible within academia; it had allowed them to work with a diverse range of people; it was exciting and interesting; it enabled them to flit between disciplines; it enabled them to experience a range of institutions.

My wider experience of ECRs in Connected Communities reflectes this – the post-doctoral experience of the vast majority included a wide range of short-term jobs at a range of institutions. Many would best be described as “portfolio careers” – taking on a range of temporary work with employers across the arts and academia, to pay the bills and build up experience.

But I come back to my permanence, and a simple point I made at the event. I was luckily enough to slip in membership of the USS Final Salary Pension scheme four months before it was closed to new members. Unless something very disastrous happens, I’m likely to keep accumulating benefits in that scheme because of the security of my job. This security gives my whole life stability and scrutiny. For me, this is a deep part of what being a professional means.

This, however, leaves us with the conundrum of how we deliver the benefits of job diversity for individuals and organisations, with security of professional status and contract. One suggestion raised at the workshop was transposing the idea of the Civil Service fast stream into academia – essentially allowing, or encouraging, people to move around to get a diversity of experience and skills, with the guarantee of a permanent and senior role at the end of it.

Such a scheme would require changes to the structures and practices of higher education labour so brilliantly illuminated by Jude and Ros’ respective work. We need to challenge the allocation of research funding on the basis of competitive tendering; we need to make sure universities employ people fairly and pay them well; we need to redistribute work around our universities. Of course, in a job with a permanent contract in a research-intensive university it is easy to say this, and the variation in ballot results between institutions in the UCU consultative ballot on the latest employers’ pay offer speak volumes about the differing experiences across UK higher education.

One way we can challenge these structures and practices is through collective action in the unions. However, bringing it back to connecting epistemologies: We have our two “m” words that we don’t all agree on: “methods” and “mentoring”; activities related to these two words are at the heart of this project. There is also a real opportunity within Connected Communities to use the basis in radical community development methods that many of the projects derive from, to also challenge these practices. And part of that method has to be supportive, reflexive, supervision – mentoring

Call for participants! ECR Workshop 2nd May 2014

Connected Communities and Early Career Researchers workshop 2/5/2014, City University London: Call for Participants.


The AHRC’s Connected Communities programme has funded a research project that is exploring Early Career Researchers’ (ECR) experiences, with a focus on the methods they are using and how this shapes the type of researcher they are becoming. The research project involves workshops and the opportunity to take part in supported reflective practice to record your experience as an ECR with Connected Communities. This call for participants is for the first workshop, called ‘understanding the early career experience’ that takes place on 2nd May 2014, at City University London. We’re inviting all of the ECRs who are part, or have been part, of a Connected Communities project to come along to share their thoughts and ideas about our four research themes:


1) The methods ECRs use in their work. 2) The ECR experience of the Connected Communities programme. 3) ECR identities. 4) The social and higher educational structures surrounding ECRs.


The workshop is an interactive day, featuring a combination of papers and smaller group discussions. The day will be divided up into an introduction to the project and the project team, papers from Prof Ros Gill (City) and Dr Jude Fransman (IoE) focusing on their research on academic life, then two group discussions looking at the methods used by Connected Communities ECRs in their work.


11am arrival and coffee

11.30-12 ‘Why does the ECR experience matter?’ An introduction to the project and the project team.

12-1.30pm Prof Ros Gill and Dr Jude Fransman. ‘The ECR experience and the academic world’. These papers will be followed by a group discussion of the issues raised by the papers.

1.30-2.15 Lunch

2.15-3.00 ‘What are your methods? Part 1’ The project team will each offer 5min presentations about the methods they use in their work, reflecting back on how their approaches are shaped by some of the issues raised by Prof Gill and Dr Fransman’s papers. The session then breaks for coffee and informal questions and discussions.

3.30 coffee

3.30-4.30 ‘What are your methods? Part 2’ The remainder of the afternoon will be small group discussions to give participants a chance to reflect on the issues raised on the day and to give their understandings of their own practices and methods.

4.3-5.30 Conclusion: we’ll (attempt!) to summarise the day with some concluding comments. We’ll then introduce participants to the summer reflective practice project, where we’ll be offering a £500 bursary for 10 ECRs willing to work with us using a variety of methods to both understand their experiences and help them to develop their research and networks.


If you’d like to come along please email dave.obrien.1@city.ac.uk or tweet @drdaveobrien. More information is on our blog https://earlycareerresearchers.wordpress.com See you in May!

Four themes for the project


The project is underway and we’re all developing ideas for the first event. We’re also trying to sort out our collective timetable for the event too, so we’ll have details of the date and the content up on the blog next week.

Before then its worth having a think about four themes that we’re hoping the project will explore. These themes have come from a combination of academic research on how HE is structured for ECRs, our own experiences as ECRs, and the wider context of the Connected Communities programme.

So (in no particular order) we’ll be developing work on 1) The social (& specifically HE) structures surrounding ECRs 2) ECR identities 3) The methods ECRs use and 4) the Connected Communities programme.

Its worth saying a little bit about each of these. The structural themes will range from the broader organisational changes within which ECRs work, for example the development of ESRC Doctoral Training Centres, the lack of a funding regime for Masters courses, and the intensity of competition for employment within academia. However, the structures surrounding ECRs are not only those in HE. Academic life takes place within an unequal society and directly reflects that inequality. So, for example, the low numbers of BAME professors, as compared with their white counterparts, or the gender inequalities of academic conference panels. We’re interested in how ECRs perceive and respond to these structures, as well as how they play out in ECR lives.

The structural themes are important for ECRs’ sense of identity. We all have multiple social identities. For academics the sense of identity that comes from work can be vitally important. What happens, therefore, in the initial period where that identity is being shaped and formed? And, moreover, what happens if that sense of identity conflicts with the demands of Research Excellence Frameworks, Journal Impact Factors and disciplinary norms? A project running alongside ours has raised the question of whether Connected Communities, with its focus on new methods and new forms of research is creating new academic identities? These identities are an important area of research when looking at ECR experiences.

The final two areas (because this blog post is getting far too long already!) tie in directly to the question of new identities and structures. What sort of methods are ECRs using? If methods are important for constructing the social world, then what sort of social world is constructed by the use of, for example, co-production or participatory research methods? And how do these methods impact on ERCs identities and their place (and prospects!) within the contemporary academy?

These questions are all under the umbrella of the Connected Communities programme, so our project will be looking specifically at how being part of a Connected Communities programme has made ECRs experience different or has added value to them. Or, indeed, if the ECRs we work with even know they are part of Connected Communities at all!


Getting started

This is the first post for the AHRC funded Connecting Epistemologies: Methods and Early Career Researchers in the Connected Communities Programme.

The project is a collaboration between 5 ECR academics- Helen Graham, Katie Hill, Peter Matthews, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor.

As a way of giving some details about the project and to get the blog started there’s a brief overview of the project below. We’re going to be posting some initial thoughts about the core themes of our work, including issues about career development, methodological choices and community research later this week. We’ll also be giving information about the events and how to participate too!

The Connected Communities (CC) programme has been designed to be methodologically eclectic, reflecting both the range of approaches found in the various disciplines constituting the arts and humanities, as well as the cross-research council basis for the funded projects. Methodological eclecticism can be an obvious strength, offering the possibility of synthesising a range of approaches, generating diverse forms of data and answering complex questions which cut across traditional academic disciplines. However, there are risks with this approach, risks which are grounded in the uneven distribution of power and expertise within academic research projects. This research will explore these risks in two ways, in co-operation with a specific community: Early Career Researchers (ECRs). The project will run a series of events that will involve ECRs in the research process looking at differing methodological approaches within Connected Communities. It will also gather data on the ECR experience, via a mentoring scheme.

Connecting Epistemologies will begin with an event that will showcase and develop ECR understanding of research methods for doing community research. It will then run a targeted mentoring and data collection programme over the course of four months. Finally it will run a workshop with the participants and the research team to prepare materials for a final event. The final event will be targeted across the range of academic disciplines involved in community research, which will present the findings from the data collection phase as well as papers offering further reflections on the methodological challenges facing community research.

ECRs are a community defined and created by the funding council, giving the research a clearly bounded group to work with that has three important characteristics. 1) They are quasi-elite community (skilled but peripheral and precarious).  Elite communities have not been made a substantive focus of the CC and this project would contribute to the gap in the CC work. 2) ECRs are a community with specific needs who would potentially benefit from the follow on funding to understand their role and position within the CC programme 3) ECRs working on CC projects are often at the front line of trying to navigate different disciplinary logics with community collaboration.

The peripheral but elite nature of the ECR community creates an opportunity to explore and to challenge the assumptions underpinning the Connected Communities programme. The programme was designed to be collaborative. This project will raise questions about collaboration, as it focuses on an elite community who are embedded in methodological traditions that give greater or lesser status to collaboration. The project, when asking what the methodological circumstances necessary for collaboration might be, can also ask when collaboration begins and ends. In particular it will raise questions of power and control over data and lived experiences. How do lived experiences become data? How can these be presented? Who has control over them?

These questions are explored by understanding the lived experiences of the ECR community, by the recruitment of 10 ECRs. They will be recruited by an event that seeks to raise awareness of the range of methodological possibilities associated with community research, but also to challenge the Connected Communities programme’s assumptions that these may all be complimentary. The recruitment will be driven by the work of the community partner and members of the project team who have focused on participatory and collaborative research methods.